Tuesday, April 12, 2011

National Poetry Month 2011

"ONE'S-SELF I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse."
- Walt Whitman, Ones-Self I Sing
National Poetry Month has afforded us here at the Reader's Block the welcome opportunity of addressing a literary form that's too often neglected. Last April we allowed our repressed love of poetry to come proudly to the surface. Danielle highlighted the many volumes written by and about Shakespeare, sundry poetry anthologies, and provided a thoughtful introduction to the work of Billy Collins. I took inventory of some of my own favorites, specifically Hart Crane, Pablo Neruda, Frank O'Hara, Carl Sandburg, and Dylan Thomas. Well, it's April again, and the 800s are our destination. (I'm speaking of Dewey numbers, natch.)

No single book of poetry in my own collection has proven to be as durable, as frankly indispensable, as Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. While I'm not qualified to offer an educated discourse on the significance of Whitman's liberated verse and wide-open stanzas, I do know something about the value of this collection. With each passing year, as I learn new things and meet new people, I find greater wisdom in the words. There is incredible optimism in these pages. A hopefulness, even an expectation, that America's future generations of poets will be "a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known." Whitman speaks with a collective, all-encompassing "I" that boldly demands fraternity. This inclusiveness is vital to an understanding of Whitman's poetics; he doesn't merely speak for himself, he speaks for all of us. (See Langston Hughes' poem "I, Too, Sing America" for a powerful example of this enduring legacy.) For me, as a reader and just simply as a human being, there isn't a more incisively empathic worldview than this passage from "Song of Myself":

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not god, is greater to one than one's self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud,
And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the earth,
And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds the learning of all times,
And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero,
And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel'd universe,
And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.